Almonte, Little League and Play vs. Sport

added 9/4/2001 by Steve Cutchen

By now you have certainly heard the story of Danny Almonte and the Little League World Series. It turns out Danny, the flame throwing Little Unit of the Rolando Paulino Little League of The Bronx is 14 years old, not 12. His father is a liar and a cheat. Little League called him despicable.

In addition, there was the very public, nationally televised umpiring mistake in the United States Semifinal between Danny's Bronx team and the kids from Oceanside California. Tom Friend, of ESPN's Magazine wrote that the truth is, they only lost to him [Almonte] 1-0. On a missed call by a blind second base umpire.

The fallout? Berating of Little League Baseball in particular, parents of kids that play sports specifically, and all youth sport in general.

Well, this is an unfair rap. And this Knuckleball is about presenting the other side.

Your Humble Servant is not just a baseball fan, specifically a Houston Astros baseball fan. He is also a former Little League parent. And coach. And still a volunteer Little League umpire. Just like every other Little League Umpire you saw on ESPN and ABC. All volunteers. And he's currently a YMCA volleyball coach.

I can tell you that I have dealt with the stereotypical Evil Little League Parent. But I will also tell you that this stereotype is a minority.

The Little League Parent

There are parents that have visions of grandeur for their kids... they figure sport may be the ticket to a scholarship or a professional career. These parents can create serious negative influences on Youth Sports because of the pressure they put on their kids and themselves. Anything perceived as a slight against their child is potentially ruining his future! There is no doubt that these parents are potential disasters. Volunteer coaches and administrators cringe when these folks come around. Their kids are blackballed simply because they come with so much parental baggage. No one will make excuses for these parents. They are a scourge. But they are also rare. Thinking about my league, I'd say less than one percent.

Another group often caricatured are the parents that are "reliving their sports careers" through their kids. But in general, these folks do not cause problems. In fact, most if the time, they are integral to their Youth Sports organizations. Think about it. What does it really mean to "relive their sports career?" Most often it means being involved with the kids in their sport. Is it that different than the parent that shares fishing with his child because his Dad fished with him? Parents that were successful in a sport often form the well of talent that Youth Sports draw on for coaches and administrators. They have a love for the sport and a love to teach it. There can be problems, though. If these parents set a poor example, or if they effectively force their kid to participate when he has no interest, they can be destructive. Culling out these bad examples is critical for success of a Youth Sports program.

But neither of these types of parents are typical. Most parents don't see their kid as a sports prodigy. Nor do they have any interest in volunteering for or attempting to influence their Youth Sports organization. They only want Johnny to be successful, a normal parental protective response. They are not living their sports fantasy through their kid. But they are fearing their kid's failure.

Unfortunately, sport is such that it always imparts failure. And this is what the typical Youth Sports parent has difficulty dealing with. The response of parents is often to find something other than their kid to blame the failure on. The coaches... The officials... Other parents... Even other kids! And this can get nasty.

I've quit trying to explain baseball rules to parents on my son's teams. They are not interested. Once after I explained a rule, I literally had a parent say, "But that's not what I want to hear!" They don't want to know the rules. All they want is for their kid to succeed.

"Play" versus "Sport"

The Almonte debacle has the anti-Youth Sports folks out in force. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post writes an article titled, Let the Little Kids Play -- Without the League.

But Sally and her ilk miss a very key point. "Play" is not the same a "Sport."

Unlike in "Play" we keep score in "Sport."

What these parents are completely missing is that the growth a child receives from participation in "Sport" as opposed to "Play" is precisely based on the fact that there will be both success and failure.

What do we teach in youth sports? Winning? No.

  • When we work with youth, we teach skills in a structured format so that kids can improve their performance and see the benefit of the hard work. No one teaches skills in Play. Sure, watching the gifted athlete perform is fun. But nothing is more rewarding than taking that kid that doesn't know which end of the bat to hold as the season starts, and turning him into a contributing and respected member of the team. I know. I've done it. A literal raw rookie became an all-star.
  • We teach the lessons of winning and losing. Winning with grace. Winning without false pride that leads to failure down the line. Losing with honor. Never more clearly displayed than by the Oceanside California Little League in the 2001 World Series. Check out their comments after learning that Danny Almonte was really 14:
    • "When I heard he was 14, it made me feel a lot better," Matt Cerda says. "I threw up my hands and said, 'Yeah! I got a foul tip off of a 14-year-old!"

      "Him pitching against us, that's like me facing 9-year-olds," says Thomas Eukovich, the losing pitcher in that 1-0 game. "But it makes me feel happy now. Because I know I struck out a 14-year-old with the bases loaded. And I almost beat a 14-year-old."

  • We teach how to deal with pressure. The butterflies a kid feels when he approaches the plate with a teammate on third and 2 outs, down a run? Not unlike the butterflies he feels when getting ready to play his Region Solo Competition music in Band. Or the butterflies he feels when walking in the room to take the SAT.
  • We teach the benefits of teamwork. The best players on the team learn that they will not succeed if the worst players on the team do not play THEIR best. Over and over I have seen that it is the performance of the less talented kids that drives the team's success.
  • And we to teach integrity. That the rules mean something. That they apply to everyone. Even to a parent that tries to cheat their kid to a Little League World Series Championship. And even to parents that would have judged a tag play at second base differently than an umpire.

The Blind Umpire

Which brings up one other issue that I'd like to take this time to discuss. The issue of the missed call in the Bronx - Oceanside game. ESPN's Tom Friend says the umpire was blind.

Really?

No.

This umpire has a name. He is Bill Stains. He is a middle school teacher from Enola, Pennsylvania, and in his spare time he is an amateur baseball umpire. He umpires high school baseball as a member of his local umpire association, and over the years he has volunteered thousands of hours as a VOLUNTEER Little League umpire. Like every umpire honored by selection to the Little League World Series, Bill paid his own way to Williamsport.

The truth about "the call" is that every umpire crew at the Little League World Series was using a mechanics system where the base umpires like Bill start outside the diamond, and break into the infield on any ball hit to the outfield. On the play in question, Bill must get inside and then pivot in time to see the runner touching 2nd base. Bill was still on the move when the runner missed 2nd base. He was covering his assigned responsibility, but the weakness of the mechanics system the crew was required to use contributed to his not seeing the miss. I'll spare you the theory behind the mechanics they were using.

Bill Stains did what he was required to do. He called what he saw. And, as reported later by the plate umpire, he was devastated when he saw the replay. He will live with that call from now until beyond when he last dons the gear and umpires his last game. It is his nightmare.

When fans go to a professional baseball game, they like to jeer the umpire. Shoot, it's an art form. There are even proper ways to do it.

But it is something different altogether to berate the Youth Sports volunteer.

The Real Value of Youth Sports

I hope my comments have helped you appreciate what goes on in Youth Sports. Like every human endeavor, there are bad stories. But the positives so outweigh the negatives.

Please don't believe just the sensational headlines.

The next time you see a Youth Sports game going on; baseball, soccer, volleyball, basketball... whatever, just pull over the car for a minute or two and watch. Get an appreciation for what's involved in putting this activity into action. Look at the kids. THIS is what Youth Sports is about.

That's my Knuckleball. Try to hit it.

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